This post was inspired by a TED talk by Dr Neel Burton entitled The anatomy of melancholy — Can depression be good for you? In it, Dr Burton explores the idea that the diagnosis of depression has been expanded from covering those who have a serious mental disorder requiring intensive treatment to include – inappropriately – those who are struggling to cope with the events in their lives. He notes that rates of depression are higher in countries and cultures where people feel under constant pressure to succeed or to achieve more.
Dr Burton believes that instead of being a “disorder” – a chemical imbalance in the brain that can, and should, be corrected with medication – most instances of depression are the result of our brains acting exactly the way they should, to protect us. In this view, depression is our brain’s way of telling us that we are putting ourselves under more pressure than we can cope with. The low mood, the lethargy, the lack of motivation that come with depression are all ways that our brain forces us to slow down, to reduce our exposure to situations that cause us stress and to give us time to reflect on our lives and our priorities.
When germs or viruses attack our body, our immune system responds by increasing our temperature – we develop a fever. One of the effects of having a fever is to make us feel tired and weak, so we tuck ourselves up in bed and give our bodies a chance to rest and recover. In exactly the same way, when stress attacks our mind, our mind responds by lowering our mood, to force us to withdraw from the stress and reevaluate the direction our life is taking. If we respond to depression by telling ourselves that we are weak or that we need to try harder, it’s just like trying to battle on as normal when we have flu. All we do is make ourselves feel worse, and sooner or later we will reach a crisis point, when the effort required to carry on is just too much.
We need to rethink the way we respond to depression. What if, instead of seeing it as an illness to be overcome with medication, we see it as a sign that we are trying too hard, striving for the wrong things or that some aspect of our lives is not in tune with our inner values? When we listen to what our minds are trying to tell us when they push us into depression, we gain a greater understanding of ourselves, we learn what is truly important to us, and we can take steps to change the things in our lives that are causing our stress. Instead of covering up our depression with medication, posting happy photographs on social media and pretending that everything in our lives is going perfectly, we may need to withdraw for a while, take time to understand what is important to us, and re-emerge far better equipped to steer our lives in a direction that will give us the fulfillment we have been seeking. When we do this, the depression will have done its job, and once it is no longer necessary, our minds will automatically release us from it.
Dr Burton ends his talk by saying “To make [depressed people] believe that they are suffering from some mental disorder … is to do them and to do us an immense disfavour. It is to deny them … the opportunity to develop their highest potential as human beings.” Although it doesn’t feel like it when you are suffering from depression, your depression is a sign that you are strong enough and determined enough to make your life better. Don’t give up on that goal, because you owe it to yourself and those around you to make life the best it can possibly be.